GLENDALE, Ariz. – Bill Veeck had a comeback ready for those accusing his teams of cheating to gain an advantage.
“I try not to break the rules but merely test their elasticity,” the late White Sox owner once said.
Elasticity, of course, is in the eye of the beholder.
Were the Astros testing the elasticity of the rule banning the use of technology to steal signs or just outright cheating?
Obviously, the MLB clampdown after their trash-can-banging scheme was uncovered by The Athletic – and the accompanying outcry from major-league players – suggests the Astros went well over the line. They’re now baseball’s most notorious team, villainized by the media, fans and players alike, a modern-day version of the Black Sox.
But the Astros are far from the only team in baseball history that employed nefarious methods to skirt the rules and try to win games.
One of their predecessors in the rules-breaking business played on the South Side decades ago. But fortunately for the 1960s White Sox teams, they played during an era in which rules were made to be broken.
That’s why the Sox’s saga of frozen baseballs has been romanticized over the years, reminding us of a simpler time when teams could get away with cheating if they were clever enough.
On a recent trip to Camelback Ranch, head groundskeeper Roger “The Sodfather” Bossard discussed the Sox’s scheme, which was hatched in the early 1960s during a meeting between former Sox manager Al Lopez and then-head groundskeeper Gene Bossard, Roger’s father.
Gene, who is in the Groundskeepers Hall of Fame, is credited with inventing the frozen baseball.
“It was Dad and Al Lopez who started it, and I think Dad took it to another level in 1967 with a guy by the name of Eddie Stanky,” Roger said, referring to the former Sox manager. “That was my first year here, so this was all new to me.”
The Sox had two rooms in which to store baseballs at old Comiskey Park. The one on the first-base side had a humidifier, and the one on the third-base side did not. Before games, Gene instructed his son to take a few dozen baseballs and put them in the room with the humidifier. At game time, they would use the so-called frozen balls.
The baseballs would not freeze, but the added moisture made them heavier than the standard 5-ounce balls.
“The connotation was frozen, but actually they were just real damp, and Dad would check it,” Roger said. “If you went to the upper deck, there was a walkway, and if you dropped a normal ball it would bounce up about 20 feet. If you dropped one of these balls, it would jump up maybe 10 feet. It was a huge difference.
“I can remember taking the balls out of those red and white baseball boxes and asking him: ‘Dad, is this OK?’ He’d say, ‘Don’t worry about it, just bring the balls to the clubhouse.’ The trick was there were no outlets, no exhaust, no windows – just four brick walls and a humidifier. The walls would literally have moisture on them.”
The reason the Sox wanted the frozen baseballs for games stemmed from the team’s lack of offense and its three ground-ball pitchers, Tommy John, Joe Horlen and Gary Peters. In 1967, the Sox led the league with a 2.45 ERA, and those three were among the top-four American League pitchers in earned-run average: Horlen was first at 2.06, Peters second at 2.28 and John fourth at 2.47.
“John, Horlen and Peters were all low-ball pitchers, and Dad had the front of home plate watered down,” Roger said. “The union wasn’t that strong back then, and you could get away with it. So there was like mud in (the batter’s box) in front of home plate. They called it ‘Bossard’s swamp.’ And the infield grass was 3 inches high, and also they had the frozen baseballs.
“Ken Harrelson and I talked about it a number of times. ‘Hawk’ said they hated coming to Chicago as players because you had trouble hitting it to the warning track. The balls were a quarter- or sometimes a half-ounce heavier than normal, but they got away with it.
“After about the third month in ’67, the league sent some people out to check on it. But Dad would show them the room that didn’t have the humidifier.”
Naturally, the heavier balls also worked against Sox hitters, so it wasn’t a fool-proof plan. They just wanted to keep the games low-scoring for a better chance to win. The top hitters on their 1967 team were Don Buford and Ken Berry, who both finished with a .241 average on a team that hit a collective .225.
“It was all pitching,” Roger said. “We had those three guys, the frozen balls, the swamp, the high grass and nobody in the lineup.”
The Sox were one game behind the Twins in a four-team AL race with five games left. But the Kansas City Athletics swept them in a doubleheader, then the Sox lost three straight to the Senators to finish three games behind the Red Sox.
Roger Bossard has no regrets, Every team was looking for that edge, the one thing that could make a difference in a game, which could make a difference in a tight pennant race. The Sox didn’t win a pennant in the 1960s, and eventually the frozen-ball scheme faded away.
Teams today still are looking for that small edge, though some have taken it to a different level, as the Astros and allegedly the Red Sox have done.
The Sodfather doesn’t want his father’s methods to be lumped in with the Astros, even if they were just different shades of rule breaking.
“When they talk cheating, obviously the stuff with (the Astros) is horrible,” he said. “But back in the day, it was all part of the game.”
One thing we know about baseball: Testing the elasticity of the rules will never go out of style.
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